The Marketing of a President

Zephyr Teachout sits at her computer in a dimly lit nook of the Dean for America headquarters in South Burlington, VT, and dreams of the real world. “I’m obsessed with offline,” says the director of Internet organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign.

Teachout is a key architect of one of the most effective marketing efforts in the history of national politics, and the most sophisticated online campaign to date. Using a variety of Internet tools, from the electronic journals known as weblogs to social networking sites, the Dean campaign has propelled the Vermont doctor from near-anonymity to the front of the Democratic pack aiming to replace George W. Bush as chief executive of the United States.

But for Teachout, a 31-year-old lawyer in black high-top sneakers, the campaign is not about the Internet. Online tools are a way to get people to act — to meet in the physical world, to put up flyers and posters, write letters and checks, speak to other people face to face. And ultimately, to get out and vote. “The Internet is moving from information technology to organizing technology,” she says, sitting in a windowless conference room at the campaign’s offices. “I e-mail you that I like Dean, maybe you’ll tell your wife. If I tell you face to face, you’ll tell everyone.”

The marketing of presidents and even state and local political candidates may never be the same. By early November, the Dean campaign claimed 500,000 online supporters, up from zero at the start of the year. Only 4 percent of Democratic primary voters said in March they would cast their lot with Dean; now, he is backed by 15 percent of likely voters, according to an early November Zogby poll. That puts him ahead of every other Democratic candidate, by at least five percentage points.

Just as important, he has been able to raise large amounts of money, a critical element in any national campaign. Dean pulled in a record $7.4 million in online donations during the third quarter of 2003, almost half his total for the period. So confident is he in his ability to combine offline and online fund-raising, Dean announced in early November that he would decline to take matching federal funds and go toe-to-toe in raising money with Bush, who is starting his campaign for reelection unopposed in his own party and expects to have $200 million at his disposal.

The lessons of the Dean campaign do not just apply to politics. Teachout and her compatriots have laid bare the essential power of the Internet to marketers of all types, from clothing to industrial equipment to financial services.

Television, radio, print and mail can create awareness and desire for a product. Senders control the presentation and, if intelligently worded and presented, the messages cause an individual or company to vote with its dollars, by buying the product. But the lesson of Dean’s campaign is that the Web is not for micromanagers. With the Internet, an effective campaign creates a community that will on its own begin to market your product for you. Properly done, you won’t be able – or want — to control it.

“We want to let [grassroots volunteers] have control, let them help the campaign how they want to help the campaign,” says Dean’s campaign manager, Joe Trippi.

The trick is to turn the buyers of a product, concept or candidate into evangelists, willing to take action on their own to spur demand. And the recruitment doesn’t have to cost much.

The payoff is a powerful multiplier effect that turns anyone into a potential campaign worker. It gives Dean a national network of troops on the ground, unpaid but on task. This is the great innovation of the Dean campaign: using the Internet to raise both support and funding, before rivals figure out how to do the same.

The two most effective tools for Dean have been a Web site that allows users to set up meetings with individuals of similar interests, known as; and the easy-to-use online diaries known as weblogs, or blogs.

Meetup is a service from Meetup Inc., based in New York City, which is free to the end users who attend the events it organizes. Blog software also can be had for free; even commercial-strength versions can be purchased for $200 or less.

Using, the Dean campaign on Nov. 4 got 138,000 volunteers to meet at 820 locations to work for the candidate. “I can imagine the campaign without the blog, but not without Meetup,” says Teachout.

Even if Dean fails to capture the Democratic nomination, he has made internetworking technology an integral factor in national campaigns for the foreseeable future. Not since the televised Nixon-Kennedy debates has there been a comparable shift in the art and science of running a campaign.

Candidates aren’t going to stop spending millions on television ads to reach mass audiences. But Dean has changed the familiar one-to-many equation of television campaigning, using the Internet to practice retail politics on a national scale. Any politician who wants to build an effective, low-cost field organization – and any business eager to harness the energy of thousands or even millions of customers to build its brand – had better pay attention.